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Should Brands Take Sides in Political Battles?

We’ve reached a new political realm in which a shoe company and a spice peddler are pitting their brands against the President of the United States. How did this happen?

Brands have always sought to persuade consumers that a particular product or service will solve their problems. Think of the “wring around the collar” commercials, brought to you by Wisk detergent.

In the social media age, brands seek to find their tribes and market directly to this seemingly self-selecting target market. Still, the members of this tribe may not have known to subscribe to a point of view or product until it was brought to their attention. The brand spoke to them, in their language, and voila, they are on board, liking, following and captured.

The language of social media advertising is conversational and casual, and that tenor and tone has proven so effective, the style has spread into conventional television ads.

Now, brands are taking direct stances. Take for example, Penzeys Spices, which is calling out Trump for xenophobic comments. “Last Thursday we called out the President’s racism—it turned into our biggest day ever,” Penzeys wrote in a post to its Facebook business page. The company said one-third of its email subscribers opted out of its list after it took a position against the president, but 2.5 times as many signed up after hearing about it. Moreover, it boasted, sales soared: “…last Thursday, in just one day, more orders were placed than in the first 17 days of July last year combined.”

This all was brought to my attention by the Facebook algorithm machine, which let me know a Facebook friend had like the post. Upon reading the post, which had more than 18,000 shares and 6,300 comments, I could see that the “top” comment was written by another Facebook friend. Facebook’s self-reinforcing echo chamber was in full swing, quickly pointing out what my friends are reacting to on a page I don’t follow for a brand I never heard of.

While reading news on Facebook, I found that Reebok, the tennis shoe company, was mocking President Trump for remarking that French President Emmanuel Macron’s wife appears to be in “such good shape.” Reebok, a fitness brand for sure, created an instructional chart on when it is appropriate to make such a remark. In the gym? No. In a diplomatic session, no. If you want to know when it is a OK, check out the sneaker company’s graphic.

MARKETING BRAND AS POLITICAL BRAND

Again, how did this happen? For starters, Trump is a brand, first and foremost. That changes everything. We are not talking about a political brand, such as Bush or Clinton, but a commercial brand. Trump himself equated his brand’s value with his net worth, even including some vast, ethereal unrealized value, whatever that is.

His brand is aspirational and hints of luxury, such as the Trump casinos. This is somewhat reminiscent of the luxury brand of Ralph Lauren, which masterfully co-opted preppy attire to evoke the aura of the landed gentry of America. Anyone could fancy themselves WASP-y, if they wore the right clothes.

The Ralph Lauren ads often portrayed beautiful people in nautical settings or posed in elegant gardens, as if they lived in Newport or the Hamptons. Remember, Ralph himself was not of that world, but certainly arrived there after crafting a powerful brand with staying power around it. That is to be applauded.

Trump’s brand is the gilded counterpart. Rather than capture the aesthetic of noblesse oblige, the Trump brand is glitz and panache. Taking a side-by-side comparison in Caddyshack terms, Trump is Rodney Dangerfield’s character crashing the party at Lauren’s Bushwood.

And while I don’t know anyone offended by the Lauren brand, the Trump brand certainly has drawn a lot of scoffs over the decades. Nonetheless, the brand was leveraged through reality TV and converted for political purposes. Whatever your politics, that is something to marvel over and analyze.

While the Clinton brand has always been polarizing and the Bush 43 brand caused havoc in the wake of the Iraq invasion, the Trump political brand’s polarization is different. It brought into hyper relief a bifurcation within the Republican Party. The Never Trump people emerged and then seemingly slunk into the woodwork.

Anyone who speaks critically of the Trump White House is marked as a Democrat or liberal snowflake. This brand is not big on policy particulars in the political discourse.

This lack of comity seems to have ripped open the policy positions of commercial brands, such as Reebok’s or Penzeys.

If you own a business and contemplate whether to take out a pro or anti-Trump position, first ask yourself if it is necessary. Is it necessary for your business or for you personally? Will it advance your business objectives? Can it wait?

A prospect once asked me what to do about negative feedback online and I joked not to respond like Trump does to his critics via Twitter. Practically speaking, most people and brands cannot be that brash and harsh. Always be true to your brand and your customers.

If you are going to take a social activism position, then stick with it. Same goes with any marketing initiative: ensure it meets and aligns with your regular business objectives.

P.S. If you have examples of retail brands going after a president in administrations past, please share by emailing me at katharine@adroitnarratives.com.